Global Health Chronicles

Philomena Sayeh

David J. Sencer CDC Museum, Global Health Chronicles


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Philomena Bloh Sayeh

Q: Today's date is March 13th, 2017. This is Sam Robson here with Director-General P. Bloh Sayeh. We're here at the national archives in Liberia. This interview is part of the CDC Ebola Response Oral History Project, but it's a little different today because we have someone who is very heavily involved in documenting Liberians' history here. I'm so pleased to be speaking with Director-General Sayeh today. Thank you for being part of the project.

SAYEH: You're welcome.

Q: May I ask you first, would you mind saying "my name is," and then pronouncing your full name?

SAYEH: My name is Philomena Bloh Sayeh.

Q: Can you tell me what your current position or job is?

SAYEH: My current position is the director-general for the Center for National 00:01:00Documents and Records Agency.

Q: Thank you. Would you mind telling me about when and where you were born?

SAYEH: I was born in Monrovia in 1954, right down at Mamba Point where they have the Cape Hotel. That used to be the maternity center. That's where I was born.

Q: That's where I'm staying right now. [laughter]

SAYEH: That's interesting.

Q: That's funny. Did you grow up in Monrovia?

SAYEH: Yes, I grew up in Monrovia, went to at first Kindergarten at St. Theresa's, then went from first grade to fourth grade at Sacred Heart Convent in 00:02:00Harper, and then came back to St. Theresa's Convent. Then went on to Ricks Institute in Virginia, Liberia. [laughs] Then from there I went on student exchange to the United States in a small town called East St. Louis, Illinois, for one year.

Q: How old were you when you went there?

SAYEH: I was eighteen. Then, I graduated from there, came back home, and started college at Webster College right in Webster Groves, Missouri, outside of St. Louis. Then I transferred back to the University of Liberia. I had an up-and-down kind of education.

Q: What did you study at the University of Liberia?

SAYEH: At the University of Liberia, I studied history. I studied history and 00:03:00graduated with a BA [bachelor of arts] in history in 1981. Then by 1983, December, I traveled to the [United] States and started graduate school in '84 at West Virginia University.

Q: What were you studying in graduate school?

SAYEH: East African history. At the University of Liberia, it was West African history, my area. I specialized in that.

Q: Was there a particular aspect of West African and then East African history that you were interested in?

SAYEH: For West African history, I was basically interested in both precolonial and colonial, and I did both in my course work. Then for East Africa, it was 00:04:00basically colonial most of the time, and the area of interest at that time had to do with labor in East Africa.

Q: Is it about 1986 or so when you graduated?

SAYEH: Yes, 1986. I finished up in 1986.

Q: Then what did you do?

SAYEH: I tried to stay in the States for about a year. [laughs] My father came there and convinced me to come back home, so I came home.

Q: They missed you, your family missed you. [laughter]

SAYEH: They did. I came home, and then I went back to the university to teach. The university sent me to school for that master's [degree], the University of 00:05:00Liberia. But because of political reasons, they withdrew my scholarship while I was there. Luckily for me, I had gone on one semester tuition waiver offered by West Virginia, when I got there. West Virginia University offered me the balance of the tuition waiver, and I finished up. That's how I completed at West Virginia. I was able to do that work in the dining hall because I could get food easily and then the rest I paid my rent with. [laughter] I finished up at West Virginia and then moved to Colorado to my sister's and tried to stay down there for a year, but my father came, convinced me to come back.

Q: What did you do once you got back?

SAYEH: I got back, I went to the university and started teaching there. I was a teaching assistant there before I went to school. So I went there and started teaching as an instructor.

Q: What were you teaching?


SAYEH: I was teaching African history generally because I had to do one or two beginning courses, and then I also taught East Africa there because there, they gave you your area of specialization also, so you keep teaching. Then the war broke out, so I didn't go back to school. I was planning to go back to do a doctorate, but I didn't get back because of the war. When I got back to the States, I could've gone back because I talked to my chairman of the department, Dr. [Robert] Maxon, and he wanted me to come back and try and do the PhD. But then my mother was very ill, so I had to take care of her. While my sisters worked, I took care of her. I worked part-time to care for her, then when she got very sick, I took care of her full-time. It was okay. [laughs]

Q: When did she pass?


SAYEH: She passed in 2004, and then I left. After three years, I came back to Liberia.

Q: You were taking care of her in the United States?

SAYEH: In the United States, yes.

Q: Where in the United States, again? Also Colorado?

SAYEH: No, Rockville, [Maryland]. I took care of her in Rockville. I got there in 1997. At first, I got a part-time [job] teaching adult literacy. The ones where people would drop out of high school, and you teach up to seventh, eighth grade levels and stuff like that. I taught that part-time and took care of her part-time because she was okay, she was not as bad. But later on, she had a 00:08:00setback, so I had to do that full-time. I left teaching for four years. Yeah, for about four years. But I stayed in Rockville until I returned to Liberia. One of my sisters was working in [Washington], DC. We used to stay in her house, my mother and myself.

Q: Can you tell me a bit about what it was like once you arrived in the United States again and were teaching and then taking care of your mother, watching what was happening back in Liberia?

SAYEH: It was hard because we have family here also, and at that time, Charles [M. G.] Taylor had just come to power, and that was a very tough regime. We worried about people being here at that time, and then sometimes watching on the news. One of the hardest--I think my mother gave up when the 2003 war started. That's when she started to go downhill. By 2004, she was gone.


Q: Did you say 2004 is also when you returned to Liberia?

SAYEH: No, no. I stayed for another three years in the States, four years almost, and I came back here in 2008 May, and I got this job in 2008 September.

Q: What interested you about this job?

SAYEH: Just my background. Somebody talked to me about it in the States. There was a group of people having a meeting, including Dr. Stone. I went to that meeting, but I just observed. But they decided when they went to the other meeting, since I was already on my way home, they would recommend that I become the head of the archives here since I had administrative experience before and also that I worked as a teacher in history. They thought it would be a good 00:10:00idea, with an administration and history background, maybe I could do something here. I was recommended by that group. That group involved Liberians and Americans together. When I came, the president [Ellen Johnson Sirleaf] had to find out who she was going to work with. It took some time, it took about four months before I got the appointment.

Q: What were some initial things you were working on with the agency?

SAYEH: The first thing is basic, just to put in basic, rudimentary systems administratively, where you don't go and buy your stuff or you don't take the money coming in and I put it in the bank. Basic things we had to put in. Procurement, you have to buy for everyone. Nobody go and buy their own stuff. Comptroller, you have to deposit the money at the end of the day in the bank. 00:11:00Stuff like that.

Q: I think you mentioned that the agency had started in the 1970s?

SAYEH: In the 1970s, but the war broke it down. Before, I'm sure we had a very good structure because the guy who was here was well organized, more than myself I dare say. [laughter] He had systems and everything in place. But we had to start from scratch and rebuild because of what we had here. It was on Ashmun Street at that time. Somebody else was occupying our building. It took us about two years, I think up to 2009, almost 2010. We moved in here. On the side, one other entity was there, and we moved in there. When we moved in there, we had a 00:12:00wedge in, so we wedged our way through until we got the building.

Q: Can you tell me about the state of the records when you arrived?

SAYEH: It was in a very poor state. It was really bad. It was on Ashmun Street, most of them were on Ashmun Street. Mold and all, very bad state. It's just now we're getting to clean some of it up, putting them in acid-free boxes and trying to safeguard them. We try our best with that. With the tools we can get, we save more and more of it, and we're working with that.

Q: Can you summarize some of your main activities from 2008 up to the present?

SAYEH: Our main activities here at the archives were to try to organize 00:13:00documents in the Executive Mansion at one point, and also organize our own documents here. We try to put them together, pick them up off the floor where they basically were, rudimentary. They're putting planks under them, and then getting acid-free boxes. Then, when the technology of scanning came in, we began to scan some important ones. We scan little by little to preserve certain things we know we couldn't preserve because we didn't have what we needed to do it with. Those are some of the activities we do. Then the general scanning and protection of land information, building that basic way. I'm going to let it go now to go to the new land agency. We worked on putting in land tenant security 00:14:00to safeguard land deeds as best as we could, and it worked to some extent, us checking to see who owns what when anybody comes in and just not to pick up someone else's land deed, to put in restrictions here and there. It worked, and it's helping us secure. And we have software on the marriage issue with fake marriage certificates and things, and be also protected, and you can find out easily by putting it through the system. If it doesn't come through the system, you know it's not from here and it's from outside. So you minimize those kinds of things. It's just a basic rudimentary, to keep it--a rudimentary way of 00:15:00keeping things afloat, but we need to go further than that. As I was telling you earlier, the need for trained manpower is huge here, and the need for equipment to do our work even better is huge. We have problems with servers and all of that. When we get a server up and running, when we turn around it's something else. But we keep forging ahead and trying to get ahead to see what we can do in that direction.

Q: I'm imagining that the war really disrupted land holdings--

SAYEH: Oh, yes.

Q: --where people lived. It sounds like really a momentous task to take on.

SAYEH: It is. It is a huge task because a lot of people came back and met other people living where they used to live. That alone is an upheaval. People have killed each other over these kind of situations. We had one or two incidents, 00:16:00even at higher levels in society, who went to blows and actually pulled out shotguns and all kind of things. But we try our best to see what can be done to get rid of that kind of stuff where that is minimized in a way across the country so it's not as brutal. But we're praying it stays minimized.

Q: Can you tell me about your experience when Ebola came to Liberia?

SAYEH: When Ebola came to Liberia, it was scary to say the least. It's something where we're all in a state of shock and we couldn't understand what was happening. It was just tough because you had to go to the market, you have to 00:17:00get food, and when you go to the market, you get in contact with people. If you get in a taxi. Some of us had cars we were riding in so we were protected from that, but generally, people who had to go to the market in cars and go to the place--my nieces were telling me something the other day. How horrified--I didn't even realize that. They said sometimes when they go to the market, the neighborhood market, when they come back, they would take up Clorox and rub themselves down because they were so afraid. I said, "Why?" They said, "You would have stopped us." They were that afraid. They heard scary words because everybody believed the Clorox water would stop the virus. And it did. It helped across the board. And then also, we had the African way of handling things with 00:18:00herbal stuff. We started to use something called "bitter kola." I don't have any here. It's not a red kola. It's not the one they make Coca-Cola with. It's shaped like an egg, it's oval. It's very highly medicinal, and it's antibacterial and stuff. It's pretty good. We used to eat that, me too, as a preventative. Then also, something we call "moringa." I think you've heard about moringa leaves before?

Q: I'm not sure I have, actually.

SAYEH: I would describe it as a multivitamin leaf. [laughs] It's a tree with a lot of vitamins in it. You can check it on the internet when you have some time. It grows in tropical countries. It's pretty good. You can use it for malnutrition. If somebody is malnourished, you can give them that. It also 00:19:00protects you from a lot of illnesses because of the kind of vitamins that are in there. And it's an antioxidant. We took that to drink it as tea. I still do now and then. I'm starting again, some more moringa. Last week, I started that. You drink it. You boil the leaves. I have a tree in my yard. That way, it's easier for me. You boil the leaves and you drink it. It's like green tea, sort of. Some people use the roots, some people use the seeds, but I just stick with the leaves because I've learned it's very strong when it comes from the roots and the seeds. But we used moringa daily, me and the kids in the house, and the 00:20:00bitter kola helped. We used to eat it and nobody got sick.

Funny enough, in our neighborhood, I don't remember immediately, there were no cases around there. Liberia is like this, you don't have only well-off people living in a neighborhood, it's mixed up to this point. Maybe in the future as far as the city planning goes, it might be different. But people, we didn't get any immediate deaths in our particular neighborhood, but not too far from us there was one in Gaye Town, the same overall area--Gaye Town is not far from Smythe Road where we live. We heard about one or two deaths there. But we didn't hear about any deaths that were--some neighborhoods you would see people lying 00:21:00on the streets. In the streets. People were dropping. I remember one time I was driving down this way, there was somebody lying down on the road. People died a lot. There were certain neighborhoods that were kind of blessed or lucky, I don't know what to say. I guess we were blessed it didn't happen that we would see it. Maybe it did, and people hid it. I don't know, because people are good at hiding stuff like that. But we didn't see anything like that. None of our neighbors died from Ebola in our immediate neighborhood. In the back of us on the other street, nobody died there from Ebola. On the other street in front, no one died there from Ebola. We were just plain lucky. But we could see the death all around when you get out and go. People died at the hospital. The hospitals, 00:22:00they were bad. I have a friend who works at JFK [John F. Kennedy Medical Center], and I went there one time. He said, "You came in here?" I said, "Yes, I just want to see how you are doing," because he's a doctor. So I went there and I spoke to him, I saw he was alive and I left. I didn't go in the hospital itself. I went to the office area. Because it was very dangerous even to go in that direction. So I left from there.

It was pretty tough during the Ebola period. Pretty scary because you keep thinking, will I get it, will I touch somebody by accident and get it? Will I walk past somebody and get it? But we kept our doors here also open. We worked every day, and we had our bucket of water with the soap and the Clorox in it, the chlorine or Clorox in it, and you wash your hands before you enter the 00:23:00building. One time, somebody died from our agency. We were not sure what they died from. We sprayed the entire building. [laughter] We had to spray the entire building because we were all afraid from office to office. Stuff like that was really scary. We could see all around, death. Death, a lot in the city.

But luckily, when the Americans came in, there were a few hospitals that they were putting up that minimized it, and more people were getting treatment. Things started going down, and that's how it minimized, when the [US] Centers for Disease Control came in. They helped to bring it down. We kept going until 00:24:00it went down. We got our inspiration actually from President Sirleaf. She stayed, she worked, she was up and down, and she was brave enough to really stand up to it. The rest of us look at that and say, well, we can try. [laughter] They had a deputy who actually joined an Ebola team in his neighborhood. I got a deputy, he's still here with me. He was on an Ebola team, and he worked with people in his neighborhood. They would call him one day, "There's a dead body." So I let him go and just did what we had to do here, why he could go--sometimes he would come every day, but when they called him, he could go and help because that was an emergency time. He did very well in 00:25:00helping his neighborhood area for that. So you have people who volunteered their time and services, who did that. They did very well. But we were glad to see Ebola go away, [laughter] because that was pretty scary and everybody breathed a sigh of relief when we were down to the last case, and we pray it never comes back because that scared everybody. Even children were afraid of that stuff. Because we'd never heard or seen anything like it before. It was scary. It happened in [Democratic Republic of] Congo, we understand. And so fast, to be so contagious, that was frightening because of the way it spread, and at the same time they say the virus doesn't last but a few seconds. But it's so vicious. 00:26:00That was scary. But anyway, it's over, and we hope it doesn't come back.

Q: Can I ask, the person who worked here who passed away from Ebola, what--

SAYEH: We don't know if it was Ebola. We asked. Nobody could tell us anything. They say he just died. I say, okay.

Q: What position did they hold here?

SAYEH: He used to clean. He was one of the cleaners.

Q: Scary. Thank you so much--I wonder, what do you think will be necessary in the years to come to remember about Ebola, to keep in the historical record?


SAYEH: One would be a list of the people who died from Ebola in the historical records. Also, a list of people who were affected by Ebola, because they also have clinical issues as I've been made to understand when I listen to the radio and other stuff. They have clinical issues. A list of those clinical issues. And then also, maybe a monument, one single monument, to remember the dead. One single one, anywhere that would be heaviest for all of us to remember.


Q: Last week, we had Decoration Day, last Wednesday.

SAYEH: Yes. And they have an Ebola graveyard for the [unclear].

Q: Is there anything else you'd like to say about your work here at the agency, or Ebola, or anything else before we conclude the interview?

SAYEH: About my work here at the agency, one. When you enter a place, for me, you should not go in there and leave it just as you met it. You should leave something recognizable that you worked with and that you changed. Whenever 00:29:00you're doing something, you should make that difference. Let it be, okay, it was here and took it one inch. Like that. At least show a sign that you have passed there and you did something there. That's the part about it.

About Ebola, we in Liberia have to consider our hygiene. I think it's unfortunate we had it, but if we're more conscious of hygienic ways and how to take care of our hygiene in this country, I think those kinds of things will not readily appear. I would like for us to remember it and remember good hygiene, especially washing your hands. During Ebola, we learned that we never even 00:30:00dreamed that hands could carry so much--even carry death. [laughs] We should keep that conscious way of cleaning our hands because we use our hands for everything. We should keep that very alert in our minds as a people. That's what I would like to say. There was a time [unclear] the work in Ebola.

Generally, I would like to say thank you to all the international people who came to our aid. They came to our aid when we were down on the ground. Our African brothers and sisters also came. The Europeans, the Americans, Chinese, everybody came to our aid and we are grateful for that because without help we 00:31:00would have finished. We would have been gone as a group of people, as a nation, because the thing was so strong. At one point, we were losing hope by the way it was going. But when people started coming in also to help, it started minimizing. So we're very grateful to all the international people that came to help us here, and we will remain grateful. May God come to your aid also when you have any problem whatsoever as a group of people.

Q: Thank you so much, Director-General Sayeh. It's been a pleasure listening to you.

SAYEH: You're welcome.

Q: Thank you.

SAYEH: Thank you.